Student Life, Studying

A guide to last minute exam revision

Tip: This is not for true cramming (i.e. the night before) this is for those occasions when you have 3 days – 1 week for revision. If you can start earlier, do! But sometimes due to coursework or for whatever other reason, revision just gets left a bit late. This is for then!

Step 1: Figure out your deadlines & how much time you have

First of all, you need to start on a revision timetable. Boring? Maybe, but useful.  Dig out your course handbook or your exam timetable or your filofax or wherever else you stored your exam deadlines and other commitments.  I’d recommend creating your timetable in Excel, partially because (I admit it) I just love Excel, but also because your timetable is likely to change a lot before you’re finished, and Excel is user friendly for changes.  Making it in Excel is really easy – I like to have the column down the left for time of day (I use half hour slots) and the top row for dates.  Start with today and run up until your final exam date.  In terms of times – don’t bother scheduling 6am if you normally get up at midday, or till midnight if you normally go to bed early.  Yes, you probably will have to get up earlier, but be sensible about it – if you’re fundamentally a night owl, now is not the time to suddenly start getting up at dawn.

So now you have your empty timetable, slot in your exams and coursework deadlines first of all. Put them in in bright red or something – make them stand out!  Then, figure out all your other commitments for the week or so ahead.  Just brainstorm them down the side, of your timetable for now, and highlight each in a different colour. Schedule them in – nights out, sports, volunteering, working, – anything with a set time.  The different colours help you to see the balance, and now you should have a timetable ready and waiting for the revision to be slotted in.

Step 2: Find out what you need to do

For each exam, find out both the format of the exam, and the amount of material to cover. For example, one exam with multiple choice, short answer and essay questions will need you to cover everything, but an exam where you answer one question of a choice of five will need less breadth and more depth: you can pick a few areas you know well, and really focus on those.  Exam formats should have been given to you somewhere, but it’s also helpful to see if you can find any past papers – they’ll help you get your head around how specific those essay questions will be.

Try and estimate roughly how long you’ll need to revise for each module: say you need half an hour per lecture for chemistry, or 1 hour per case study for psychology etc. Make a note somewhere (Sheet 2 in your Excel document maybe 😉 ) and keep hold of it.

Step 3: Prioritise

If you’re short on time, it’s important to figure out what is most important.  A 10% multiple choice exam will be lower on your list of priorities than an exam worth 100% of the module.  Similarly, if you have 2 exams worth 60%, one in a module you’re great at, and one in a module you struggle with, you can afford to cut a few hours revision for the easy module in order to put more time into the harder module.

Step 4: Pencil things in

Again, using different colours for different modules (or different sections of modules if you’re being very detailed/have only a few exams), start slotting revision into your timetable, remembering to allow for some breaks!  You can start off filling slots as simply as “Chemistry”, or you can go straight in with “Chemistry – Lecture 1” etc.  Keep going until either you’ve managed to fit everything in, or run out of space on your timetable.  If you’ve run out of space, that means you’ve run out of time – either you need to compress your revision (not recommended) or cut something else out.  Could you go to the gym less this week, or reschedule your night out for next week? If possible, reduce lots of things rather than cutting one thing out completely – that way you don’t feel deprived!  Keep going until you’ve managed to fit everything in – if you have spare time all the better: you’ll feel less stressed, and have time to go over anything you’re not confident with.

An important thing to consider: revising one topic for an extended period of time can result in boredom and your brain switching off, so if you can switch modules throughout the day that might be a good idea. Personally I’m pretty hopeless at that, so I try to allow for lots of breaks or switch to a related subject (i.e. from desert biology to polar biology)

You should now have a finished timetable, which might look something like this:

example timetable
As you can tell, my timetable for this week is pretty bare – I’ve got no lectures or sports activites on, and our night out plans have been postponed until next week.  That means my only real commitment is blogging, which I’ll basically fit in where I can. I’ve left a lot of blank spaces on here both for time when I’ll be blogging, breaks from revision, and for when revision just doesn’t go to plan. Having a sparse timetable when you can manage it means that you can fit extra things in if you need to: that last minute trip to the vets, a recap of something you didn’t understand etc.

Step 5: Make yourself accountable

Whether you choose to physically print out your timetable and cross things off, make a to-do list of each revision session you can tick when complete or a tally chart of time spent revising towards each subject, make sure you find some way to make yourself accountable. This not only gives you a sense of achievement (because I personally never feel like I’m getting anywhere with revision), but it also helps you see if you’re on track.  If you’re on track great, if you’re ahead – even better. More importantly, by being accountable from the start, you can find out early if you’re behind, in which case you have time to rearrange your schedule to fix that!

Step 6: Get revising

Revision itself mostly comes down to personal preference but here are some things to think about:

  • Location: if you revise better in the library, go! If you work best at home but get distracted by your PC find a way to avoid that. Whether you make your whole computer unavailable (lend it to a trusted friend for supervision), certain websites only (download a website blocker or something similar) or set yourself limits (i.e. computer is off limits until I’ve achieved my revision for the day, or only after 8pm or something similar).
  • Alone or in a group: If you’re the sort of person who revises well in a group, then go ahead and see if anyone wants to buddy up. I personally am not, but sometimes I’ll meet up with a friend to discuss a topic we’ve already finished revising. Alternatively, you could meet up to brainstorm answers for past papers (purely in bullet points), then go off and revise individually.
  • Snacks: If you stock up on food now, you won’t have to take time out of your timetable to go shopping. Snacking a lot may not be how you would normally eat, but I personally find I just get distracted by being hungry if I don’t have things I can pick at, and after all, it’s only one week.  I wouldn’t recommend microwaving a ready meal every few hours though! Easy foods that you can leave on your desk might include nuts, popcorn, grapes, skittles, etc.  Don’t forget drinks too.
  • Breaks: Without breaks, you’re going to go crazy.  Find a reasonable break system for you: try different ones out if you aren’t sure.  If you’d rather have regular short breaks, set a timer for 45 minutes-1 hour, and give yourself 15-20 minutes for a break (set a timer for that too!).  If you’d rather have longer breaks to get out of the house or just relax more, work for an hour and a half or so and then take half an hour off.  Figure out what works for you.
  • Method: Everyone revises differently, but some popular methods include mind maps, making essay plans for longer questions (though stick to bullet points and short sentences if possible), making notes and revision cards.  Alternate between styles if possible, both to help remember material and to keep yourself from getting bored.

Finally, try not to stress too much! Exams aren’t the end of the world: there are often resit or make up opportunites, and even if there aren’t, one bad exam can be pulled up by a good result later in the term if needs-be.

Do you have any tips for last minute exam revision, or for exams in general? I’d love to hear your opinions, revision strategies and coping mechanisms!

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